11 December 2009

Local Elections 2010: Why Scrapping the Direct Election of the Tbilisi Mayor Would Be a Good Idea

When is a compromise not a compromise? After parliament passed the first reading of the legislation to change the electoral code last Friday, government leaders sought to explain the rationale behind not only the 30% threshold for electing the mayor but their offer to have the Tbilisi mayor directly elected in the first place.

On the threshold, there's not a whole lot to add to this analysis of President Saakashvili's comments that a 50% threshold would cause a candidate to be elected by "hate votes." I'd only add that in one democratic system the UNM has seemed to admire -- Japanese democracy, where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party governed for nearly 55 years straight, with a 11-month break in the early 1990s -- the opposition Democratic Party of Japan swept to power earlier this year on the basis of what observers called "an act of political protest" ("It was as though an anti-LDP fever gripped the nation"). "Hate voting" happens.

More interesting have been the ruling party’s comments about the direct election of the mayor. Saakashvili says he had "lots of doubts" about a direct election. On Friday, parliamentary vice-speaker Mikheil Machavariani (UNM) said that "we have chosen the wrong way" in Tbilisi.

So why did they do it? Saakashvili says it was to reach "maximum consensus" with the opposition – in other words, that it was a compromise. Indeed, the opposition had sought direct elections of mayors back in 2005, in advance of 2006 local elections.

However, this was in the context of a new and unusual "winner-take-all" electoral code that was widely deemed as granting the ruling party an unfair advantage. It was in this context that the opposition did not support a new rule for the indirect election of mayors by the city councils – in and of itself, a democratic advance from appointed mayors.

The opposition also wasn't calling for the direct election of mayors earlier this year when the government made this "compromise" (though they didn't reject the idea too loudly either).

Now, with a 30% threshold looming, opposition leaders (at least those outside of parliament) aren't too happy about taking part in such a competition: the low bar coupled with the fact that so many opposition figures are planning to run for mayor appears to tilt the competition in favor of the incumbent. Moreover, mayoral candidates who lose may very well be institutionally shut out of politics in the short-term -- not as mayor and with no seat for themselves in the city council. Frankly, the opposition may be better off focusing their energies on securing their (probably large percentage of) seats in the city council.

Which brings me to my "politically incorrect" proposal: if the UNM agrees that the direct election of the mayor is not a good idea, and the pluralist nature of the opposition suggests they have better prospects in the city council race than in the mayoral race, why not scrap this so-called “compromise” of direct elections and allow the city council to elect the mayor?

In this case, the electoral code still needs to be modified along the lines that all parties have (more or less) agreed upon: a mixed single mandate/party list legislature of 50 seats and opposition roles in selecting the CEC chairperson and as commission secretaries. As well, legislation endorsed by the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association on limiting the use of administrative resources in the campaign appears to be getting discussed in parliament -- a desirable objective no matter what rules are finally established.

Most importantly, with such a system in place, the outcome will not be predictable. The UNM will receive a certain percentage of seats, the nonparliamentary opposition will receive their percentage, and the parliamentary opposition will receive theirs. None of these actors are likely to receive 50% of the vote on their own – the politics and coalition-building needed to elect a mayor would happen after the election.

Retreating from direct elections will be a significant reversal on the part of all parties, UNM and opposition alike. But if everyone agrees that it is in their interests, it will be an easy decision to make. Constituents are not going to care all that much. And a "grand compromise" like this would doubtlessly meet with a high level of approval among European and American democracy watchers.

It may seem obvious, but perhaps it is important to restate: Georgia's international friends place a tremendously high value on a democratic process in Georgia, but they really do not care who wins local elections. Supporting the establishment of electoral institutions that provide a "level playing field" for all actors is not some kind of code for supporting the opposition. A democratic election that returns the incumbents to power in Tbilisi and other municipalities will be welcomed and deemed just as legitimate as a democratic election that brings the opposition to power. The goal is to support an electoral system that makes it maximally uncertain who will win.

04 December 2009

Local Elections 2010: Is 6 Months Enough Time?

This week, parliament began procedures to amend the constitution to allow for early local elections. Less than six months before the elections are to be held, neither the mechanism for setting the date nor the electoral code itself are in place. And the constitution is unfortunately being used again as a completely malleable political instrument -- such frequent changes to the constitution undermine the notion that law should prevail above short-term political interest, whether intentions are good or bad. The only thing that might change my mind in this particular case is if the amendment actually provides long-term institutional flexibility, rather than simply enables elections to be held early this year. I haven't seen the text, so I don't know.

I still think it would be best to hold local elections at their scheduled time. There is no sound reason for early elections, other than inertia (the ruling party proposed the early date as a compromise to the opposition days before rallies began in April, even though such a proposal was not on the agenda). Among parties planning to participate, there seems to be no dissent against early elections, but I think its still worth proposing to hold them at their scheduled time.

If spring elections are inevitable, efforts have to be focused on making them as healthy as possible. The first issue is a cautionary one I've mentioned before -- the law as the draft stands will allow the president to announce the date of the election 45 days in advance but no later than June 1, 2010. This flexibility should not be used to the UNM's political advantage (as it was in 2006 local elections). The president should publicly commit as soon as possible, even if it is not yet possible to do so in law, to the May 30 date everyone assumes will be the date the election is to be held.

The second issue concerns, again, the threshold. I still firmly believe a threshold higher than 30% will grant far greater confidence about the outcome of the mayoral election. Whatever the decision, however, the electoral code must also clearly proscribe the extralegal use of administrative resources and provide for an acceptable appeals process -- in ways that have the confidence of a wide spectrum of parties, NGOs, and international organizations. There are multiple points of view regarding the threshold: my main concern is whether the ruling party has the ability -- legally or otherwise -- to manipulate the outcome, in advance using the powers and resources of the incumbency in ways considered illegitimate in healthy democracies or on election day itself. It is one thing if the UNM's candidate (reportedly acknowledged to be incumbent Gigi Ugulava) could genuinely obtain a 30% victory in a free and fair election (not ideal from the point of view of legitimacy, but still democratic). It is another thing if the UNM's candidate could only really obtain 29% of the vote but through various illicit means proclaims victory.

Finally, though at this point the matter seems moot, I still think the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor was not only unnecessary (and possibly counterproductive) for advancing Georgian democracy, it was something that, strategically, opposition parties should not have accepted. Given the fractured nature of the opposition, they would probably have a better shot at securing control of the mayor's office if they had focused their attention on getting a majority of seats in a directly-elected city council that would itself select a mayor (this was an important democratic change to the law already in advance of the 2006 local elections, one now fated to have been relevant for a single election). Now, the race for the Tbilisi city council has become relatively less important, when this is a body that provides an excellent opportunity to seed both a multiparty democratic system and the deepening of legislative power, both features that could usefully be extended to the national parliament in anticipation of 2012 elections.

Comment below or write democraticgeorgia@gmail.com

25 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (III)

So the UNM is sticking to its position that the mayor of Tbilisi should be elected with a 30% threshold, with party leaders intent on moving discussion away from the interparty working group to parliament.

First, let's tackle the question of compromise, which I still believe is the critical aspect to electoral code reform, moreso than the substance of the compromise itself. Defending the UNM's decision to cut short the working group discussions, MP Akaki Minashvili (ex-director of the Liberty Institute NGO and a former Kmara youth movement leader) argued that the threshold dispute should not be taken in isolation. The ruling party has already compromised by agreeing to an expansion of the Tbilisi city council with new election rules (25 party-list, 25 single mandate), something which increases the likelihood that more parties will be represented in the city council, and selection of the CEC chairperson by opposition CEC members (out of a list of 3 nominated by the president). Given such concessions, Minashvili says, the Alliance should reciprocate by accepting the proposed 30% threshold.

To this point, I could add that a 30% threshold is more consistent with the compromise rule parties have provisionally agreed upon for the election of city council deputies, who are to be elected by a simple plurality. If city deputies are to have limited political (as opposed to administrative/legal) legitimacy by virtue of this low bar, why should the mayor have so much more?

On the other hand, this is why a 40% threshold still seems to me a reasonable compromise between two politically-motivated positions. The other compromises are theoretically neutral (the first, definitely; the second, presumably, but what if the president proposes 3 obviously unacceptable candidates?). On the threshold, however, the UNM presumably supports 30% because it believes its candidate has a good chance to win outright with 30% of the vote, especially in a multi-candidate contest. (Any new public opinion polls on this?)

It appears, however, that another UNM objection to a high threshold is along the lines of the point I made earlier -- that a 50% threshold will become a political tool in the hands of a victorious opposition. The UNM does not to want to risk a scenario by which an opposition candidate wins the mayoral election with a majority vote and proceeds to use his/her popular mandate as a vehicle to try and unseat the ruling party in contentious ways rather than focusing on properly governing Tbilisi.

How exactly this might happen is worth speculating upon. In the runup to national elections, would an opposition-run City Hall condone or facilitate the kind of mass protests that are now illegal (more on that timely issue in a future post), or at least refuse to implement the recently-amended law on assembly, potentially creating a "revolutionary" situation of dual power between city and national governments? Will it foster and use its own administrative resources to help steer the vote in national elections? Will it seek to create an atmosphere of crisis in an effort to demonstrate that the ruling party has lost its ability to govern?

Theoretically, all these outcomes are possible, especially considering the opposition's efforts to foster a revolutionary environment on the streets of Tbilisi last summer. However, its not clear, first of all, that a 30% threshold would somehow dampen the efforts of a victorious Tbilisi mayor who was already inclined toward radicalizing the post. Second, likely opposition mayoral candidates are hardly all in the "radical" camp; it is hard to imagine someone like Irakly Alasania, the most viable nonparliamentary opposition candidate participating in the working group, using his post to destabilize the situation "from within."
In the end, perhaps there would be a risk of confrontation between the Tbilisi and national authorities -- even one that in the context of future mass protests dangerously raises the question of who has the right to control the streets. However, that's a challenge democratic state-building ought to willingly grapple with, isn't it? Not one it should seek to avoid.

I'm still not convinced that the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor is necessary or desirable -- the current system, introduced in 2006, provides for mayors that are indirectly elected by city councils. This was undeniably a democratic advance from the old system of appointed mayors, and there's a lot going for this system in the evolving Georgian context. Moreover, if this rule is going to stay in place for the rest of Georgia's city elections, its not at all clear why the Tbilisi election rules should diverge.

Perhaps more on that in another post, as well as some thoughts on the amended law on protests and its recent utilization (or mis-utilization?) in the case of the three demonstrators in front of parliament.

P.S. As I've mentioned before, I invite comments -- not only publicly but by email at democraticgeorgia@gmail.com. If you email me, please specify whether you want me to directly post your comments (attributing you or, by my judgment, anonymously) or whether you just want to offer corrections/clarifications/thoughts to incorporate as I see fit (without attribution). Either form is perfectly welcome. I recognize that many informed readers may not want or be able to post public comments.

19 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (II)

The news that the multiparty working group on the election code has failed to reach an agreement on new local election rules is discouraging. Not because participants could not reach a consensus, but because of the suggestion by MP Pavle Kublashvili (UNM) that the working group format has exhausted itself.

The point of the working group is to enable a compromise to be reached, not simply engage in the process of dialogue just to toss the format aside at the first suggestion that participants cannot agree. The working group should not be set aside, even if the consequence is to push back the election date to give participants time to reach an agreement (which, actually, I don't believe is that negative a consequence).

The good news is that participants appear to have (largely) agreed on 2 of the 3 main elements of a revised code: a 50-seat party list/majoritarian system for the Tbilisi city council and a major role for opposition parties in selecting the CEC chairman. This consensus is welcome and impressive. [NOTE: Details are in this statement by the Alliance for Georgia.]

The sticking point is the percentage needed for a first-round victory in the direct election of the Tbilisi mayor (which I'll have more to say about in my next post). The government and the main parliamentary opposition (Christian Democrats) support a 30% threshold while the main nonparliamentary opposition in the working group (Alliance for Georgia) seeks 50% , but expresses a willingness to go lower.

First of all, let's take the question of compromise -- the reason for the working group in the first place (and something that should be a major objective of any democracy promotion policy in Georgia). The ruling party says that 30% is their compromise figure, since they originally wanted no threshold at all.

This is not really so convincing. The government's starting point for negotiation should be the existing institutional framework that they have perpetuated and developed. The relevant existing rules are: a) majoritarian "block" deputies of the city council are elected with 30% of the vote; b) the mayor is elected by the city council with a simple majority; and c) majoritarian deputies in the national parliament are elected with 30% of the vote (see the election code and the law on the capital city -- here are the relevant draft amendments).

All together, this strongly suggests that at least 30% should be considered the government's starting point for negotiation. A simple plurality has never been (to my knowledge) an element of the electoral rules at either national or local government levels. Moreover, given the importance of a directly elected mayor, it would seem that the baseline should be at least as high as that for city council members and parliamentarians.

So the government (and CDM, for reasons that remain opaque) support 30%. Alliance for Georgia supports 50%. One can only deduce that a reasonable compromise is 40%.

In support of such a compromise, a quick canvas through democratic Eastern Europe suggests that only Albania and Ukraine have lower thresholds for mayoral elections (they both have simple plurality rules). The rest require a 50% victory or indirectly elect their mayors through city councils. [CORRECTION: As MP David Darchiashvili points out in a comment below, systems are more diverse than I thought. Hungary, Slovakia, and Bosnia also have plurality-based mayoral elections, so institutionally a 30% threshold is not so out of line.] And 40%, while unconventionalon the low end, is not unprecedented: at least two U.S. cities, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Berkeley, California, have 40% thresholds for victory in direct mayoral elections (as does New York City's mayoral election primaries) [Thanks to Georgetown grad student Dave Lonardo for that].

Finally, aside from its virtue as a compromise, in the Georgian context, a threshold that is lower than 50% makes some sense. Whether the victor is from the opposition or the ruling party, he or she will become a serious contender for the presidency. A 50% victory would grant the new mayor enormous popular legitimacy. Obviously the ruling party doesn't want an opposition mayor to have such a mandate in the leadup to presidential elections -- better they win in Tbilisi with 31% of the vote than with 51% -- but it also may not want their own candidate to have such legitimacy either! The jockeying for position to be the UNM's presidential candidate has barely begun; a majority-elected UNM mayor would virtually preempt that contest. And in general, its not clear that what Georgian democracy needs is a more individual-based political system regardless of who wins the mayoral election.

Even so, 30% is too low to build confidence. Besides the fact that the nonparliamentary opposition thinks it too low, there are too many concerns about the "imbalance" of (administrative) resources and their potential misuse giving an unfair structural advantage to the ruling party's candidate. Michael Posner, US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, suggested in Tbilisi the other day that it was important that a "level playing field" be established for the local elections. Its not clear that a 30% threshold does that.

The electoral working group should not be thrown away. A compromise consensus on the threshold should be established.

17 November 2009

Local Elections 2010 (I)

Local elections are to be held next year, tentatively on 30 May, and negotiations regarding new electoral rules are underway. Local elections are not only important for their contribution (at least in principle) to local government, they are also a dress rehearsal for the 2012 and 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. The electoral campaign, election day, and the postelectoral count and handling of appeals will all be indications of government and political party commitment to democratic practices. No less significantly, local elections -- particularly for the Tbilisi city council and mayoral races -- will define many of the leading actors in the next national elections.

There are a few pressing issues. The first -- which I'm surprised has received so little attention -- is the matter of officially setting an election date. Local elections were supposed to be held in the fall, but as a concession to opposition parties, the government offered to hold early elections in the spring (30 May, just over six months from now). However, no date has been officially fixed. According to the electoral code,  the date of an early local government election is tied to the date that local government bodies will be dissolved. In principle, this means that the president can keep opposition parties guessing as to the official date of elections by announcing a snap dissolution and -- as mandated by law -- schedule new elections within 45 days, leaving parties (and election administrations and monitors) little time to prepare. There is a precedent for this kind of politics -- in the 2006 elections, the government took full advantage of its right to set the date of local elections just 40 days in advance. If the government is committed to holding local elections on 30 May, a more formal declaration is in order.

Personally, I'm not convinced that moving the schedule up for local elections is really that useful an idea (and at the time it wasn't really taken to be much of a compromise). The "Code of Good Practice" of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission suggests that no amendments to electoral laws should be introduced within one year of an election. Given the extensive reworking of local election rules that is underway, a 12-month period is probably appropriate. Still, none of the parties that plan to participate in local elections appear to object so far to the early date.

13 November 2009

Getting Started

What needs to be done to improve Georgian democracy? An array of institutions require continuing attention. Main areas of focus include the constitution and electoral legislation; the judiciary and interior ministry; and media. All these areas have been subjects of discussion since the first days after the Rose Revolution, six years ago.

The government's forcible dispersal of protestors in November 2007 led to heightened attention to the shortcomings of Georgia's democratic system. Since then, and especially after the August 2008 war, the government of Georgia began acknowledging the need to implement a "new wave" of democratic reforms. While reforms have been implemented or initiated in a number of spheres, and promises for further reforms have been made, much more work remains.

For a recent survey of the "second wave" of democratic reform, see Transparency International Georgia's September 2009 report, "Reform or Retouch? Georgia's 'New Wave' of Democracy". Also see the collection of articles in Spotlight on Georgia (ed. Adam Hug of the UK's Foreign Policy Centre).

A detailed analysis of Georgian politics and institutional reform since the November 2007 crisis can be found in my article, "Still Staging Democracy: Contestation and Conciliation in Postwar Georgia" (Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2009). Svante Cornell and Niklas Nillson provide a more concise treatment of the subject in the same journal. Other valuable recent articles include "Georgia's Year of Turmoil" by Miriam Lanskoy (National Endowment for Democracy) and Giorgi Areshidze (Journal of Democracy, October 2008), and "Compromising Democracy: State Building in Saakashvili's Georgia" (Central Asian Survey, June 2009) by Lincoln Mitchell. An early critique of the post-Rose Revolutionary constitutional reforms by Irakly Areshidze is here. Areshidze and Mitchell also have book-length treatments of Georgian politics that are indispensable reads.

30 October 2009

Democratic Georgia

I'm starting this blog as a way to help contribute to the efforts of those in Georgian government structures, political parties, and civil society, as well as in the international diplomatic and development communities, who are working to implement democratic institutional reforms in Georgia. Georgian democracy is a work in progress, and continued reforms are vital if Georgia hopes to stay on a path that leads to further integration into European and Euro-Atlantic communities of nations.

Georgia's devastating war with Russia led to a new, existential, sense of insecurity. Russia militarily occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia (at the behest of local leaderships), built new bases and border patrols, expanded into territories and districts formerly under Georgian control, and positioned its forces in strategic locations kilometers away from Tbilisi and from Georgia's main east-west artery.

The well-meaning insistence of U.S. policymakers that the United States will never recognize South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence misses the point. Georgian insecurity has far more to do with the return of the Russian military presence to Georgia, less than one year after it was voluntarily withdrawn; the de facto Russian annexation of its internationally recognized territory, particularly in South Ossetia; and the opacity of future Russian intentions toward Georgia as a state.

Under such circumstances, it should be no surprise that democracy-building might run into some difficulties. But a bitterly-divided body politic; a lack of trust and transparency among political forces, between state and society, and within governing institutions; and a lack of consensus regarding the fundamental rules of the political game all do more to further imperil Georgian security and, conceivably, its statehood.

Moreover, with Europe and the United States having lost (at least for the time being) whatever appetite they may have earlier had to bring Georgia briskly toward NATO, or in any way to play a serious role in its security architecture, Georgia's hope for deeper European and transatlantic engagement lies solely with its ability to democratize -- genuinely, in multiple spheres, and in multiparty fashion -- in other words, its ability to indisputably become Europe's newest democracy.